Back in 2006, George Mason basketball had perhaps one of the greatest runs in the NCAA Tournament. With all the odds against them, they navigated through the tournament beating teams picked as favorites while at the same time defining a legacy. With not one NBA prospect on the squad, this team embraced the term Cinderella and showed that with the right formula anything is possible.
Led by senior guard Lamar Butler, George Mason captured the hearts of fans and proved anything is possible. We caught up with the guard to discuss everything George Mason and to take us on a stroll through memory lane. Check it out.
*** *** ***
Dime: What are you doing lately? Anything basketball or coaching related?
Lamar Butler: I played basketball overseas for five years then economy just started going downhill so I had to find something else. That said, I had my own sport and goods business and the website is sportsheavenusa.com. So that’s what I do now, sell equipment uniforms for teams and organizations and it’s fun.
Dime: So where exactly did you play overseas?
LB: I was in Turkey twice, Czech Republic and the D-League. I’ve been everywhere.
Dime: Okay, yeah how was it with the D-League?
LB: Umm, it’s cool if you’re like a guy in the NBA radar you know? But if not, I wouldn’t suggest going there ’cause they kinda already know who they want.
Dime: Oh okay, I never knew that, I never really knew that.
LB: Yeah, if you’re a guy trying get filmed for next year to go overseas, I would suggest doing the D-League. But, if you’re dreaming of going to the NBA I wouldn’t really [recommend] that because they pretty much already know who they want.
Dime: What team were you with in the D-League?
LB: I was with the Colorado 14ers and we had about six or seven NBA guys.
I had to get traded, ’cause you know I was barely playing once those guys came down. That team actually ended up winning the championship, of course, but I ended up in Reno.
Dime: Who were you playing with in Reno?
LB: That was on my team, David Noel–he played with the Carolina team that we beat so that was kind of fun. Also, I played with Russell Robinson from Kansas and Patrick Ewing Jr. Me and Patrick played AAU together so I had knew some guys on that team already.
Dime: Great. So let’s dive a little bit into your playing career at George Mason. How was it playing under Jim Larranaga at George Mason?
LB: Coach L is one of those guys who turn you know from a boy into a man. He held you accountable through everything you did on and off the court. He just taught you a lot about life and discipline and just to enjoy every moment. The biggest thing about Coach L was it was fun. He made playing basketball and winning fun so that was probably the biggest thing Coach L taught me while I was at George Mason.
Dime: What was your role as the senior guard on the team?
LB: Man, that’s crazy. You know no one has ever asked me that. That team, man, was so weird. Because you know my junior year, we had young guys so you know the seniors had to be leaders on the team. My senior year, you know even though we had the three captains, I would say we had six captains on the floor. I mean, it was no set person who had to lead ’cause everybody were leaders. This team was definitely the weirdest team and closet team I’ve ever been on. I can’t say we actually had captains because we all just discussed and talked about everything ’cause we were on the same page on the court and off the court. We were always together so I really can’t say what my role was except go out there and have fun on the court.
Dime: You guys were a cohesive gel? What made you guys so close to each other?
LB: Man we just clicked and we bonded. We also did everything together. I mean, if somebody was going to the grocery store we would call each other and say if anybody needed something from the grocery story. We just looked out for each other, you know. You can tell we generally loved each other off the court and it showed on the court. We always had each other’s back. Also, you know if somebody was slacking on the court, somebody would be there to step in and get in your face. No matter who you were. There was somebody to hold you accountable.
Dime: That’s cool. That’s what a team is about. But at the beginning of the season John Vaughan went down with the ACL surgery. How was it having him out?
LB: Yeah it’s crazy, I remember when he did it and I kind of knew that’s what he did. It hurt because that’s like my little brother. All through his freshman year he came in, we just kind of gravitated toward each other. It hurt to watch him go down and then not be able to play with us all year, but he was our biggest cheerleader. It was tough to watch, I never seen anyone get seriously injured like that. Three seniors actually took him to the training room that preseason, so I remember that very vividly. That was real tough.
Dime: Going into the 2005-2006 season, dealing with the first player injury in the preseason, what was your mindset?
LB: The mindset going into it was everybody else gotta step up. So Folarin Campbell ended up stepping up that year and Gabe Norwood definitely stepped up. I mean, he could have started and he came off the bench. That’s basically what the mindset was. We got to just to pick up what J.V would have brought. If not one person can do it, we can do it as a team.
Dime: So from your point of view, how was it navigating through the NCAA? What were some of the notable games or players that were “key” in GM’s scouting reports that you had to focus on?
LB: Hofstra. They had Antoine Agudio. They had Loren Stokes also. His brother played at Cincinnati. Then UNC Wilmington always played us tough. Next, I would say Old Dominion. They had Alex Loughton. I would say those three teams. Oh, and also VCU definitely.
Dime: Out of the NCAA, who was the team that was pretty much the problem… and the guard… that was a problem for you?
LB: Hofstra’s guards ’cause they ran a pro-style offense with heavy screen and rolls and they had shooters that can spread the floor so it was very tough to guard. So Hofstra’s guards definitely.
Dime: Let me paint this picture for you. So it’s Selection Sunday, the committee has picked the teams for the field of 64 and you’re waiting to see what region your seeding is going to be. How did you feel about that?
LB: It’s crazy. We looked at the first matchup and it was Michigan State. We played them the year before at the Verizon and it was pretty much a close game all the way through ’till the last minute. I will never forget Chris Hill hitting two threes back-to-back to seal the game for them. So we had our whole team coming back and they actually lost a couple guys so we were very confident against them. Then we saw the North Carolina team in are bracket and immediately thought “they’re young.” Then we saw the Wichita State team too. There was no team in our bracket we feared or made us nervous about playing them.
Dime: So you guys went through arguably the toughest road in the NCAA Tournament. How was it preparing mentally for it?
LB: It wasn’t really hard because we were such a mature team. We just knew how we had to play when were on the court. Coach gave us the gameplan and we just went out and executed it to the best of our abilities. We just went out and defended well and got stops while outscoring everybody.
Dime: Now with teams such as Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State in your bracket, was it hard getting mentally prepared to eventually play all those teams?
LB: Nope. Not at all. Basically play how you always played and control what you can control. The coaches always did a great job of scouting and it comes down to who is going to execute the best. In addition, we had a team full of winners and who were strong mentally, so there wasn’t anything we did differently.
Dime: Now you guys beat these teams and reach the Elite Eight where you have to play a UConn team that was tabbed the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament. How was it going into that game?
LB: It was big as you probably know. We never played them and they were loaded with NBA talent and we didn’t see any weaknesses in film. But when we got to the arena, we noticed that they were not interacting with each other. When you saw us we were always laughing and joking with each other whereas they were a bunch of individuals. That was the weakness we saw, we even talked about it before the game. It was just something we sensed. We knew we were the closer team. We just had to play together for 40 minutes and we would be fine. That was the biggest thing we saw on media day.
Dime: Speaking of media day, a bunch of media outlets figured GMU was pretty much done when you guys played against UConn. How were you able to block the negativity out and really hone in on beating this team?
LB: Man, there is negativity for everybody, from the average person to somebody who plays sports. Everybody deals with adversity. So we heard that stuff but we didn’t take offense to it. We just said that we will prove you wrong. We sat down and watched all that stuff and took it as our time to shock the world. Like I said earlier, we had guys who were mentally strong and didn’t back down from nobody.
Dime: I remember you ended up on the front page of the Sports Illustrated cover. Do you remember the first moment you saw it.
LB: Sure do! Practice was over and I was getting up more shots with Coach Johnson and I heard Coach Larranaga yell “Oh my God!” and I turn around and there is a crowd of the other players. So he tells me you have to come see this, so I run to the other end of the court and I see the copy. It was a black and white copy that came through the fax but when I looked at it, it didn’t really hit me. So I went back to my post-workout and when I was done I sat on the side of the bench with the copy in my hand. Then it finally hit me, like this is something I can show my kids and they can show their kids for the rest of their lives. But I never looked at it as individual thing because it was more of “George Mason Basketball” was in Sports Illustrated.
Dime: That’s so cool, that was definitely a great moment in your playing career. When you guys played against UConn, how did you guys prepare to go up against a team that was so big… considered one of UConn’s biggest frontlines in perhaps the decade?
LB: The gameplan for us was to get back in transition. A team like that is hard to stop. We just made sure we didn’t give up any baskets, contained on D and contest every shot. Basically, we had to show we can play with them too while being efficient.
Dime: Random question. Do you remember the song that you were listening to before that game that got you pumped up?
LB: I don’t think I listened to music that day to be honest. I had an iPod but I cant really remember the song I listened too. It was probably some Jay-Z.
Dime: Can’t go wrong with Hov. How did the school react with George Mason basketball finally in the limelight? From your SI cover to winning games in the tourney, how did the George Mason community react?
LB: I kinda distanced myself to be honest with you. I still had school so I was in class. Plus, Coach did a great job also. He told us what was bound to happen and warned us. But, it really never went to nobody’s head. We still had a job to do and a mission to accomplish. Nobody really fed into it.
Dime: Unfortunately, you guys lost to the Florida Gators. Do you remember what went wrong in that game?
LB: We had a couple bad rotations. But honestly, that game I knew whoever won that game was going to win the national championship. Did I think Florida was gonna beat us by 30? No. But, we watched UCLA play, we watched LSU play and we knew our teams were the better teams of the tournament. But, I really blocked that game out. I have the film but I won’t watch it.
Dime: At the end of your years playing at George Mason, how was the experience? How would you sum it up?
LB: Uhh… From injuries to personal matters in my life, I would say perseverance. I been through it all in my career. Not too much I or the team haven’t been through.
Dime: Who was the toughest person you had to guard in the NCAA Tournament?
LB: Jameer Nelson. I had to guard him my freshman year. He got a counter for everything. I remember telling Tony [Skinn] when I’m done guarding him you have to guard him. He wore us out.
Dime: Speaking of Tony, do you keep in touch with any players from the team?
LB: I talk to Tony at least once a month. I spoke to Jai [Lewis] about a week ago and I recently spoke to Gabe.
Dime: That’s whats up. It’s cool you still keep in touch with them. For the people that were not aware, you were recently honored at a George Mason game. Can you explain why?
LB: They actually made me the honorary captain and was presented a George Mason jacket. It was pretty cool, that was actually like the first or second time back since I graduated.
Dime: Let’s do a little game called “Dime Dash” and in 30 seconds, you have to answer five questions without thinking. Just give me the answer that comes straight to your head. You ready? We will start with this: Who was the best player from the DMV at your time when you were in college?
LB: Steve Francis
Dime: What sport was Jai Lewis better in: basketball or football?
LB: (Laughs) Basketball.
Dime: Who do you think is going to win the NCAA Tournament?
LB: That’s tough. Would have to say Syracuse.
Dime: While you were at George Mason, do you remember your favorite subject?
LB: Yeah. It was communications. I forgot my teachers name but we used to call her “Mrs. P.” I loved that class.
Dime: And my last question is, what was the one memory you have while at George Mason?
LB: The fealing I got after we beat UConn. I will remember that feeling forever.
What do you think?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @DrewTheAbstract.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.